Baseball fans of the ‘90s and 2000s could all agree on one thing: Hating the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. That’s quite the accomplishment. Baseball is a game that thrives on debate. Fans constantly disagree about which player is better, or who belongs in the Hall of Fame or whether Barry Bonds is the actual home-run king.
So what was it about the Red Sox and Yankees that was able to unify 28 other fanbases in anger? Both teams were willing to spend money.
Opposing fans hated that any premier free agent would sign with either the Red Sox or Yankees. Fans hated the way those teams always seemed to extend their budgets, even when it seemed impossible they could go no higher. And fans applauded when those teams failed in the playoffs. It was proof that teams couldn’t buy a World Series championship.
Fast forward to the present, and those Red Sox and Yankees teams don’t look so bad. They might even look desirable, even to fans who despised the way they operated. Because, while their free-spending ways could be annoying, the Red Sox and Yankees made those moves with one goal in mind: To win it all, no matter the cost.
It’s tough to know what the goal is today. The Red Sox became the latest team to submit to the luxury tax last week. Just a year after winning the World Series, owner John Henry wants the Red Sox to cut payroll. Given that the team is already butting up against the luxury tax as currently constructed, that could mean one or both of J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts are gone by next season. Team president Sam Kennedy expressed a desire to keep both players Monday, but admitted it was going to be tough to retain Betts and Martinez while staying under the luxury tax.
The idea of the Red Sox dealing away a homegrown superstar at his peak would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but it’s par for the course the way things are going today. The Red Sox may have held out longer than most teams, but now they operate like everyone else. They want to win, but only if the cost is right.
The Yankees adopted that same approach in 2018. After losing in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2017, the Yankees decided it was time to start caring about costs. They made modest additions in the offseason, stayed under the luxury tax, and lost in the American League Division Series in 2018. They were defeated by the eventual world champion Red Sox, one of the two teams that exceeded the luxury tax in 2018.
With the Red Sox changing their ways, the two financial juggernauts of the last two decades no longer exist. That would have been cause for celebration in the ‘90s and 2000s, but it’s a sobering thought in 2019.
Free agency has stagnated in recent years. Useful veterans with strong track records find themselves signing minor-league deals. Productive contributors take one-year prove-it deals in hopes that things will be better next offseason. Elite free agents capable of improving any team are only seriously pursued by two or three clubs, and remain on the market until February or March.
The rest of baseball has already decided to adhere to a strict budget. If the Red Sox and Yankees are going to follow the same strategy, there’s no motivation for any team to break from that idea. Why should any team go all-in if it knows everyone else is content staying within its budget?
The Red Sox and Yankees of old wouldn’t let that happen. They would spend for the best players no matter the cost, knowing it gave them the best chance to win it all. While that wasn’t a foolproof plan, it resulted in yearly playoff appearances and plenty of World Series championships. And it gave baseball fans something to rally around, for better or worse.
The Red Sox and Yankees of the ‘90s and 2000s were hatable, but you couldn’t question their desire to win.
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